Libraries in action: community outreach and integration as disruption

              Traditionally, libraries have required their users to come into the library to use library services. More recently, libraries have begun to go into their communities and to engage with them to better serve the community’s needs.

               One way that libraries have displaced themselves from their traditional manifestation is with bookmobiles. By going out into their communities, bookmobiles shed light on “the accessibility of roads, where roads go, what and whom they connect,” and they increase institutions’ awareness of the ways that they communicate and interact with their communities. By removing the traditional library context, librarians can have informal communication with their community that is more flexible and can “accommodate (or even foster) a plurality of voices.” By integrating with the community, bookmobiles have an opportunity to “acknowledge and respect local knowledge of infrastructural limits and capacities” With this knowledge, they can identify and “communicate broken infrastructure.” Ultimately, “[t]he work of bookmobiles cannot be reduced to the act of passing out books or even to producing networks of people, texts, and technologies. The political capacity of bookmobiles, as mobile institutions, can manifest along axes of transportation, language, and memory. (Lingel 2018).”

               Another way that librarians participate in community action is through disruptions of the prison system. The industrial prison system has repeatedly curtailed prisoners’ access to resources and reading materials. Sometimes these restrictions take the form of malevolent donations such as the “gift” of e-readers to prisoners that charge by the minute to read books. Sometimes access is censored due to the book’s content being seen as promoting liberation, criticizing the industrial prison system, or not following the prison’s guidelines (Inklebarger 2018).  Books to prisoners groups, such as the Prison Book Program, were founded to address the need for reading materials (legal, educational, and recreational). Prisoners can write to the Prison Book Program to request books. Then, a team of volunteers will read the letters, pick the books from the Prison Book Program’s library, read the books to make sure they don’t contain “forbidden” items, and prepare the books for mailing. Librarians who volunteer are responsible for maintaining the organization of the Prison Book Program’s library (Throgmorton 2016). Another example of librarians providing aid to their incarcerated community members is the Brooklyn Public Library’s establishment of Telestory to 12 different prison sites. With Telestory, families have a library-housed video conference space filled with books, stuffed animals, and crayons where they can read together and share private moments. (Cottrell  2017). Within the prison library setting, Dan Marcou of Hennepin County Jail established the Read to Me program, which allowed incarcerated parents to send books and voice recording of them reading the book to their child (Cottrell 2014).  

Community outreach is central to the development of reciprocity between libraries and the communities they seek to serve.

Annotated Works Cited

Cottrell, Megan. “Keeping Inmates on the Outside.” American Libraries, vol. 48, no. 1/2, Jan. 2017, p. 50.

In “Keeping Inmates on the Outside,” Cottrell explores different ways that libraries have created systems to maintain inmates’ links to the outside world and to help them navigate life after prison. Dan Marcou created a guide to re-entry for folks who are leaving their correctional facility. Going Home includes library and shelter locations, advice on finding housing, jobs, and education. The guide also includes legal, self-care, and addiction resources. Another initiative that Cottrell explores is the Brooklyn Public Library’s Telestory initiative. Telestory is a library-based video conferencing service for inmates and their families, thereby allowing them to have a private and more welcoming space to read to their children. Cottrell also looks at the Women’s Open Lab initiative, where women released from correctional facilities, who are often survivors of domestic abuse, can seek information in a safe and welcoming environment.

Lingel, Jessa. “A Bookmobile Critique of Institutions, Infrastructure, and Precarious Mobility.” Public Culture, vol. 30, no. 2, May 2018, pp. 305–327. 

Jessa Lingel explores the place of bookmobiles in society. Lingel examines the role bookmobiles in Pakistan, where mobility is minimal and access to Arabic texts is highly contested. Lingel also looks at the fluidity of bookmobiles with the use of taptaps to navigate the roadways of Haiti. Both examples display how bookmobiles become part of the day to day landscape in a way that centralized libraries cannot. In being mobile, bookmobiles are more flexible and can interact with their communities to provide the best for them and react to challenges in a quicker manner.

 Other Sources

Appalachian Prison Book Project. “How Much Does it Cost to Read a Free Book on a Free Tablet?,” November 2019.
Cottrell, Megan. “Reading on the Inside,” American Libraries, December 2014.

Inklebarger, Timothy. “Restricting Books behind Bars: Books-to-Prisoners Groups Face Roadblocks.” American Libraries, vol. 49, no. 6, June 2018, pp. 22–23.

Throgmorton, Kaitlin. “The Freedom of Reading: librarians help bring books to prisoners,” American Libraries, October 2016.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s